Called "Ebony and Ivory" by some, a pair of domestic ducks that were apparently abandoned at Lake Merritt. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

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On a recent afternoon, downtown Oakland resident Jacov Malul kneeled by an edge of Lake Merritt, peeling a mandarin orange. A few feet below him in the water, two domestic ducks roosted on a concrete storm drain pipe, surrounded by floating garbage. One of the ducks, with white feathers and a conspicuous coif, perked up to pluck an orange wedge from Malul’s palm and swallowed it whole.  

“She’s wounded,” said Malul, pointing to an apparent gash on the female’s bill. “Probably from a fight.” Malul fed the pair nearly every day since they appeared, early in the spring, on the western finger of Lake Merritt near Glen Echo Creek. At one point the pair attempted to reproduce, Malul said, but the clutch of eggs seemed to disappear. He believes they washed away with the tide.

Both ducks are a domestic breed, descended from mallards and historically bred for food or decorative purposes, not for living on lakes. The white female is a Crested variant, while the male, or drake, is a Cayuga with black feathers that appear slightly iridescent in the right light. They are but the latest domestic waterfowl to appear at Lake Merritt, probably unwanted pets or farm animals, naturalists speculate. Their presence raised questions about the City of Oakland’s responsibilities to abandoned animals.

Malul is not the ducks’ only admirer and self-styled custodian. A sign taped to a light pole, near where the two ducks liked to hang out, proclaimed that “the people of r/Oakland,” referring to a Reddit forum, had “conferred and voted” to award the pair “Lake Merritt’s Power Couple Award 2020,” calling them Mr. and Mrs. Remsen and Fiber. Art made by fans of the ducks also clung to the pole, a level of adulation normally reserved for the city’s official bird, the Black-crowned night heron. Other online threads, and some lakeside passersby, refer to the bonded pair as Ebony and Ivory. 

Art made by fans of Lake Merritt’s famous duck duo. Credit: Sam Lefebvre

Malul has also heard the female referred to as “Birdie Sanders,” but didn’t seem invested in one name or another. He did agree with many internet commenters that the ducks’ location was not ideal. They were often found along an exposed corner of the lake with only concrete to rest on, where garbage gathers and mixes with street runoff from the drain pipe. When we met in mid-December, Malul hoped the city would create a raised platform for the ducks on the storm drain, or relocate them to an enclosed freshwater pond near several islands created as bird breeding grounds and by the Rotary Nature Center, the small city-run interpretive museum. 

But on Sunday, Jan. 3, another Oakland resident, Dawn Rogers, captured the pair and took them to Rancho Compasión, a nonprofit farm animal sanctuary in Nicasio where she serves on the board of directors. “They didn’t resist at all,” Rogers said. “They were definitely pets—the black duck was nuzzling my cheek and making contented noises the whole way.” Working with the Funky Chicken Rescue in Vacaville, both ducks will receive needed veterinary care and a permanent home, Rogers said. “I’m amazed they lasted as long as they did.”

Polluted water surrounding the Lake Merritt duck pair. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Steven Summers, a former city parks and recreation worker at Lake Merritt who has continued tending to its birds in a citizen capacity—particularly Hank, the resident pelican— welcomed this outcome. “I would not recommend moving them to the bird yard,” Summers said, referring to the freshwater pond. “It would stress them out, and they’d have to compete more for food as well as avoid predators.” 

According to Summers, people leave domestic waterfowl such as Muscovy and Pekin ducks at Lake Merritt partly under the mistaken impression—rooted in the era of a more robust naturalist program—that city workers still feed and rehabilitate birds at the lake. “People’s hearts are in the right place,” he said. “There was a time when the nature center would deal with an injured bird.” 

(Another popular misconception—that the lake is freshwater—leads people to release turtles and bullfrogs there. “It is not a kind thing to do,” reads a May bulletin from the Lake Merritt Institute, a nonprofit that works with schools and volunteers on cleanup and education initiatives, alongside a picture of a dead frog.)

Domestic ducks do sometimes successfully breed at the lake. More often, Summers said, they fall prey to raccoons, dogs, or hawks and owls. In other words, the nation’s oldest wildlife refuge, which was originally designated a “duck refuge” in 1870, cannot always live up to its reputation. 

In 2018, East Oakland resident (and perennial mayoral candidate) Ken Houston filmed himself leaving seven Muscovy ducks at the freshwater ponds near the Rotary Nature Center. Two years later, only two remain, Summers said. “The predators have caught on,” he said.

Sonomia Byrd, the recently-installed naturalist at the Rotary Nature Center, which reopened last year after closing for refurbishment in 2017, only to close again due to the pandemic, agreed that domestic ducks appearing at Lake Merritt is a problem. “We’re trying to strategize the best course of action,” she said about Ebony and Ivory (or whatever you prefer to call them), before their rescue. “It looks like that would be placing them in a sanctuary setting.”

Like other services historically provided by the city, looking after the lake’s domestic bird population, and conservation efforts generally, fall increasingly to public-private partnerships and civic-minded volunteer efforts like the 38 groups that comprise the Lake Merritt Advocates coalition. Even the city’s official bird is an example: responsibility for rehabilitating a Lake Merritt rookery of black-crowned night herons recently fell to a real-estate development firm. It was not successful.

Byrd, echoing new signage being installed around Lake Merritt, discouraged feeding the birds or attempting volunteer rescue operations—even if the animals appear to be in distress. “When it goes bad, it can cause more injury or stress,” she said. However well-meaning, Byrd continued, these actions also threaten to flout the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. If members of the public encounter distressed birds, Byrd said they should call the Rotary Nature Center or an independent wildlife rescue. 

Still, in the absence of readily-available resources, citizen naturalists feel compelled to act.

One afternoon in September, Lyla Arum, a daily Lake Merritt birdwatcher, eyed an unusual duckling on the edge of the bird island nearest shore. A raccoon a few feet away appeared to spot the same vulnerable creature. Arum dispatched the raccoon with a thrown pinecone and then waded into the shallows, retrieving what turned out to be an infant French white Muscovy duck under her arm. 

“It was another abandoned farm animal,” Arum said. “People, unfortunately, dump unwanted domestic ducks at the lake, erroneously thinking they will thrive.” Arum took home the duckling, naming it Ezra, and called upon fellow bird-rescue volunteers and organizations such as Pacific Waterfowl Rescue for advice. “We all found out how hard it is to place abandoned domestic birds like ducks in sanctuaries,” she said. After seven weeks, Arum placed Ezra at Zinger Ranch near Vacaville.

Ezra, a duckling rescued from Lake Merritt Credit: Lyla Arum

Would-be rescuers of Lake Merritt dwellers who don’t belong there are in for a challenge, Arum said. Sanctuaries tend not to prioritize domestic birds. When they do, they’re selective: introducing a domestic duck into an existing flock is a delicate, weeks-long process, and drakes are often reluctant to admit other males. The celebrity pair also appeared to have a bacterial infection called “bumblefoot,” according to Arum, exacerbated by microabrasions from the concrete storm drain. 

Darcy Smith of Funky Chicken Rescue, which is now working with Rancho Compasión to care for the pair, confirmed they have bumblefoot; the female also appears to have a condition called wet feather, which is largely what it sounds like. Depending on their needs, they will live permanently at one of the two rescues. Lake Merritt, Smith agreed, is not an environment for domestic ducks. “We need to educate people about not dumping farm animals at parks, where they don’t get the care they need.”

Summers, the former parks worker, doubts the plight of abandoned domestics like Ebony and Ivory at the lake will open city coffers, not as Oakland faces a budget deficit that’s been compared to conditions during the Great Recession. In the meantime, volunteers such as himself will continue feeding them cracked corn, commercial birdseed, seedless grapes, thawed frozen peas, and certain kinds of lettuce. Summers noted, importantly, that ducks at Lake Merritt (or anywhere) should never be fed bread, potato chips, or french fries. 

Overall, he appreciates the fact that Oaklanders want to help Lake Merritt’s birds, even as he urges them to learn how to do it safely. “Citizen scientists and birders picking up the slack is also part of the lake’s history,” he said.